Heroic actions are not always done by heroes. Greg Bruce meets some ordinary people whose lives have led them to perform extraordinarily good deeds.

First, a couple of examples of what we're not talking about.

It was 3.15am in troubled Afghanistan when a rocket-propelled grenade blew Willie Apiata off the bonnet of the vehicle on which he was sleeping. He picked up a dying colleague and carried him 70 metres through the middle of a firefight so dense that, as his Victoria Cross citation says, it was "scarcely possible" he wasn't shot.

It was 2007 when Wesley Autrey left his two daughters standing on a subway platform in New York and leaped on to the track in an attempt to save a man who had fallen. He couldn't pull the fallen man up, so he lay down on top of him while the train passed directly over the top of them, less than an inch above his back.

These are great stories of good acts - acts of such courage that we can hardly believe them. It is easy to find such stories of people performing extraordinary acts. They are relentlessly on our front pages. They are truly impressive, truly good, but they are just acts - just moments in a life.


What is more telling, but generally less newsworthy, is not the moments, but the life. Apiata, Autrey and other heroes are the show ponies of goodness. What about the draught horses - the people whose lives are lived more quietly and steadily in accordance with some greater sense of what it means to be good? Let's go looking for them.

Earlier this year, businessman Derek Handley sat at the centre of a long, rectangular table in the cool concrete warehouse headquarters of Eat My Lunch, just off K Rd, surrounded by about a dozen people, most of whom were working to prevent food wastage by sending it to people in need.

Handley pulled out an expensive-looking leather-bound pad and made a very short introductory speech about what he wanted from the participants at the meeting. He then sat, listening and making notes, for most of the next hour.

Handley, 38, began his working life as an ambitious entrepreneur with a dream to become a billionaire. In his early 20s, he started an online betting business and then he branched out into an online branding business. He made enough money that when Richard Branson asked him to spend a year of his life heading an organisation called The B Team, designed to help business do good in the world, he was able to do it.

He has written a book called Heart to Start, about his experiences building successful businesses and a meaningful life, and he gave a graduation speech at Auckland University of Technology in 2014, focusing on the "Triangle of Significance", in which you locate what to do with your life at the intersection of what you're good at, what you love doing, and what the world needs from you.

So the first two things we should take away from Handley's story is that he's doing good and that he has quite a bit of money. He's rich enough that he can do these types of things, so maybe he has more of an obligation than most, but still many with that obligation don't.

Lisa King, left, Chef Michael Meredith, centre, and Bruce Begg, right from Eat My Lunch, busy making hundreds of lunches from a house in Mt Eden.
Lisa King, left, Chef Michael Meredith, centre, and Bruce Begg, right from Eat My Lunch, busy making hundreds of lunches from a house in Mt Eden.

"If you have more than others," he says, "you have a responsibility to contribute."

He told the group at Eat My Lunch that he was trying to get a better understanding of food waste and food recovery. He spoke about "How horrific the chasm between the amount of food that's being wasted in the world and the amount of food that's actually needed and just connecting those dots. There's huge potential."

This project was at a stone cold beginning but his aim was to use his skills in building organisations and businesses to bring these people and potentially others, together, to make sure that less food is going to waste and fewer people are failing to eat.

"I don't think people wake up in the morning and go, 'Hey, how can I be good tomorrow?'" he says. "They wake up and they think, 'There's got to be more than this, and there's more of me to contribute to this world'."

But actually, how many of us wake up and think either of these things? Most of the time, aren't most of us just focused on getting through the day?

Aristotle spent much of his life trying to figure out what a good life looks like. Socrates and Kant also had a crack. The resulting works, among them Nicomachean Ethics and Critique of Practical Reason are not easy reads, but Tim Dare, head of philosophy at the University of Auckland, has almost certainly read them.

"We live the good life," he says via email, "if we live in a way which is appropriate for creatures like us. This idea has seen philosophers including Socrates, Aristotle, and Kant focus on our capacity to reason and to act on our decisions. Of course, we have the capacity for mere pleasure too, but that capacity is not distinctive. The life pursuing mere pleasure would not utilise the thing about us which seems special: our reason."

But nothing's ever as simple as it looks, and Dare says that recent research from Jonathan Haidt and others in the field of moral psychology has started to throw some doubt on this philosophical thinking.

"Haidt argues that emotion almost always beats our reason to the punch, so that a lot of what feels like antecedent reasoning and evaluation is in fact post-facto rationalisation."

That is to say, although we might think we've reasoned our way to a good decision, often we're just using our reason to justify something we did on impulse.

It sounds a bit depressing, this idea that we're not as much in control of ourselves as we think we are. But Dare's view is less bleak: "Even if it's true that we are often led by our passions - or our 'reptilian' brain, as it's sometimes put - to desire things we should not, we have the capacity to reason about those desires and see that we should not act on them, and the capacity to avoid doing so."

There is no grand playbook for how to live a good life. Any set of rules or prescriptions would lead us astray in at least some cases, Dare says." But we can conclude that the good life is likely to be one which has us living 'in accord with our nature' where that requires more than the pursuit of mere pleasure or wealth, and is likely to see us contributing to good communities which create the conditions in which we and others can live such lives."

Of course, some people are better positioned than others to live this sort of life. "Five-year-olds don't say, 'I want to go to prison'," says Ian Lambie, associate professor of psychology at the University of Auckland. "It's what happens to you along the way that shapes your behaviour and ability to make good and informed choices."

Poor attachment to primary caregivers, being born into poverty and hardship, parental alcohol and drug abuse, a lack of positive parental reinforcement: these are a few of the things that can negatively influence people's ability to make good choices about how to live.

"There are unique things we have to adjust to and come to terms with, that impact on who we are," Lambie says.

Standing on top of North Head a few years ago, on a blue sky Auckland day, alongside an asylum seeker who had recently arrived in Auckland and who later became a friend, Tracey Barnett looked out on the twinkling harbour and said to him, "Isn't it beautiful?"

His reply, in its entirety, was: "It hurts my eyes."

It was an important moment in Barnett's life, the realisation that this man's perception of life was completely different from hers, that she could never fully understand where he had come from. He had been raised to love the soft browns and beiges of the desert; she had been raised to love the bright blue-greens of the harbour.

Barnett says she knew at that point that she would never begin to understand what asylum seekers had to go through to establish themselves in this country. Still, she has devoted much of her recent life to helping them. She continues to strive to increase the refugee quota and to keep the issue at the forefront of the national consciousness. She has a website, wagepeacenz.org, through which she makes the case. It's currently her full-time job.

Asked if she was sacrificing her life for this, she laughs. "Are you sacrificing your own life to do your own journalism? What makes your tail wag? What makes you say had a good day? What keeps you clear? It's a privilege."

She has spent time in war zones and has met the people affected by those wars: the same types of people she is now devoting her life to help come to New Zealand. But, while polls suggest a majority of us want to increase the refugee quota, the majority of us would never go to this extent.

"You would if you were standing at your door in the middle of night and someone knocked, with their house on fire," she says. "When you do reporting from war zones, everybody's life is a house on fire."

Pushed for why she wanted to report from those war zones in the first place, Barnett says: "I think my parents are good people. There's nothing deep here. I am a Jewish woman and there is a long tradition of Jewish social conscience and giving, but I don't know ...

"I have said I need to dissipate more bad. It's seeing injustice to people who don't deserve that. I don't see myself as terribly good, I see myself as somebody who gets genuinely pissed off at seeing the bad in the world and hope to take a small piece of my energy to do something."

Robyn Toomath says her deeds have not been noble, rather that she has used her training.
Robyn Toomath says her deeds have not been noble, rather that she has used her training.

For 15 years, Robyn Toomath has waged a personal battle against the obesity epidemic. As Auckland Hospital's head of internal medicine, she knows what works and what doesn't. What doesn't work is making people personally responsible for
their weight loss.

She says, "The weight loss industry should go up in a puff of smoke."

About 85 per cent of people who lose weight fail to sustain it over the long term.

Toomath has spent a large amount of her time and energy trying to persuade successive governments that changes have to be made to our environment if we are to reduce the high levels of obesity that are significant contributors to a huge number of health issues, including type 2 diabetes. She has failed. Late last year, acknowledging this fact, she announced she was quitting the charitable organisation, Fight the Obesity Epidemic, which was incorporated as a charitable trust in 2007.

"When I came to the point last year of deciding that over the [previous] eight years I hadn't achieved anything, it wasn't with a sense of despair. I don't resent doing what I've been doing. This is what doctors or people in privileged positions do. It should be part of our jobs. It is a rewarding part of my job and the fact I didn't have a list of things I could tick off didn't make me feel it was something I shouldn't have been doing."

Her activism over obesity began, she says, when she was president of the New Zealand Society for the Study of Diabetes, which is a role that rotates through senior diabetologists. It was just her turn, she says, and since the role had some public profile, she thought she would use it to elevate concerns about obesity, since obesity is a key driver of the diabetes epidemic.

"There's nothing particularly virtuous about that," she says. "Just as I learned to be a hospital doctor or anything else, I learned the role of advocacy. You become better at it over time. It seemed to be useful to keep doing it so I did."

She quit Fight the Obesity Epidemic because she saw that the Government was paying no attention to the facts.

But she hasn't quit. She has just published a book called Fat Science: Why Diets and Exercise Don't Work - and What Does, which lays out her arguments. As the head of internal medicine at one of the country's largest hospitals, her influence and her capacity for doing good will always be outsized. She will be a public face for fighting obesity in sensible research-tested ways. She says she's quitting, but she's not really, and never will.

"I would refute that I'm doing good acts," she says. "I'm too much of a biologist to believe in virtue. I'm a lucky person, a privileged person. I don't feel like what I've been doing is noble. I would hate to be classified in that way. It's just my job. I've got the training to do this stuff."

Several people Canvas approached for this story chose not to be part of it. Cot death researcher Ed Mitchell was one. His work has helped prevent the deaths of an estimated 3000 babies.

Mitchell wasn't interested in taking part because he wasn't comfortable with the notion of being a "do-gooder". He said "I've just been fortunate that my work, which is what I'm paid to do, and so enjoy, has had such an impact."

Does he have a point with this line of self-deprecation? Does Toomath, who doesn't believe in virtue? Does Barnett, who believes she was just reacting to somebody knocking on her door with their house on fire? Are all these humble do-gooders actually right, that the good they do in the world is in some way just a happy accident?

Philosophers and philanthropists apart, most of us just don't think that hard about something as abstract as how to live a good life. We aren't going around drawing triangles of significance; we're just bumbling along, doing our best.

Barnett says: "I think the really good people won't even take your call." These are the people you never hear about: people who are looking after large, extended families, baking cakes for others' birthdays, taking care of the little things that will never come to the attention of national newspapers and that those people may never even be thanked for.

"I think the best people are the people who live quiet lives."